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Helping Otters in the UK



The Eurasian otter (Lutra lutra) is classed as “Near Threatened” in the IUCN Red Data List, which means it is near to facing a high risk of extinction in the wild. The otter was once widespread throughout the UK and Europe. Several factors contributed to the decline but the major cause was pollution. In the 1950s and 1960s otters disappeared from much of the UK largely due to pesticides (organochlorines) which accumulated in their tissue. Since these chemicals were banned the population has only been recovering slowly in spite of what we read in the media.

Many otters die on roads and events like flooding will have a serious effect. Of course, they swim but they are semi-aquatic and need to come on to land, and, of course, small cubs are very vulnerable. Otters breed slowly and so recovery from any population loss will take some time.


Education

Although otters are relatively well known to the public in the UK there is still a lack of awareness when it comes to threats. There has been a lot of publicity that otter populations are now “everywhere” after their disastrous drop in numbers in the mid 20th century. And yet according to official data there are only about 10,000 in the whole of the UK - otters breed slowly and so recovery from any population loss is not rapid.

In order to address this problem we need to produce more education material, particularly for young people. Children learn most easily when they are having fun and so games are great educational tools. IOSF produced a children’s education pack “Let’s talk about otters” with information on otters, indoor and outdoor games, puzzles, etc.

However, nowadays children use interactive material on computers to learn many subjects in school and in the home. Our Education Officer has created an interactive map to show the different species of otter. However we need more up-to-date material which will educate, inform and encourage the protection and conservation of otters and our environment. This will be available on the website so that it is widely available both in the UK and abroad.

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Community Outreach

Although the education material mentioned above is available on the website, we also have a programme of visits, particularly in rural parts of the Highlands and Islands. Living on Skye we know how valuable it is to small schools to receive such visits - some schools on the islands have under 10 pupils, such as Struan Primary School on Skye which has four pupils (photo right).

Input from outside educators is rare for these remote schools as travel costs are so high. And yet such visits can really inspire the children and lead to practical conservation and also to more information on otters and their distribution. By using records obtained through this citizen-science it will also encourage people to report more and become more active in conservation. Education is vital if people are to become aware and concerned about conservation and children are often the gateway to community involvement in conservation.

Our programme of school visits began with the primary schools on Small Isles (Eigg, Muck, Rum), and the neighbouring mainland school of Arisaig. These schools are all very small (Rum 4 pupils, Muck 10, Eigg 8 and Arisaig 27) and the visits were met with great enthusiasm by the children and teachers alike. We now need to extend these visits to other schools in the Highlands and Islands.

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Otter Hospital and rehabilitation centre

IOSF’s reputation in this field has grown considerably and we are now regarded as world experts. We receive frequent requests for help and information and have been asked to speak at conferences in Ireland, Holland and Indonesia.

In our own hospital on Skye we treat 12-14 otters a year and the biggest cost is for fish. Cubs stay with their mothers for 12-15 months so we have to release them at about the same age or they will not survive. This makes food bills very high.

In 2010 we helped with two cubs in the Democratic Republic of Congo – one spotted necked and one rare Congo clawless cub, named Mazu. She became an ambassador for otters in the region and even politicians from the capital Kinshasa visited. Local villagers now care about otters and take pride in telling visitors to Kikongo about THEIR otter. They have since cared for more otters and there is now an official Kikongo Otter Sanctuary. This is clearly having a great impact on otter conservation and on caring for the environment in general, not only in this country but further afield in Africa as the story spreads.

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Otter Post Mortem Work in Scotland


Photo: Cardiff University Otter Project.
The decline of the otter went largely undetected and the need for monitoring was not understood. Otters are a Schedule V species and there is now a duty under European legislation to monitor their health and status. This is done by post mortems analysis but it was not done in Scotland from the late 1990s until the start of 2014, when IOSF managed to get some seed funding. Such research is necessary to determine pollution levels and other potential threats not only to otters but to the environment as a whole. As otters live on land and in water they require both habitats to be of optimum quality, which is essential to all species including our own.

In 2013 researchers at Cardiff University found a new pollution threat from chemicals affecting the male reproductive organs of otters. In 2014 these nonylphenol chemicals were found in 20 rivers in Scotland. Cardiff also found that of the 110 otters aged only 10 were more than four years old and the oldest was only eight. Similar studies in the Czech Republic and Germany have found otters as old as 16 living in the wild. This is clearly very worrying as we don't know the reason, but without data we have no idea if this also is happening in Scotland. Recent reports (2016) of dangerous pollutants in pilot whales make this research even more vital.

The seed funding obtained has enabled IOSF to start a collaborative project with Cardiff University to obtain this data but further funds are needed to keep this vital project going.

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Research - Regular Otter Monitoring

From 1992-1996 a detailed study of the otters on Skye was carried out which looked at distribution around the island and produced a population estimate of 350 for the island. Since 2007 IOSF has had a programme of regular monitoring of the Skye otter population using camera traps and surveys of 15 sites.

This has revealed a lot of information on breeding and behaviour. Until the study it was believed that otters living in the coastal environment were diurnal as compared with the largely nocturnal otters living in freshwater. Through the research it has been revealed that coastal otters are active both day and night.

The study has also revealed that only seven cubs have been born over a period of 18 years, which works out at 0.38 cubs per year. This is in an area of pristine coastal environment which is undisturbed and has plenty of prey. If the reproduction rate is so low in such an area the estimates for the rate of expansion being put forward for many parts of the UK are clearly grossly exaggerated.

Such long term study of the behaviour and distribution of coastal otters is unique and is providing extremely valuable data.

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Reducing Road Deaths

The biggest cause of non-natural deaths of otters is the road and this is a particularly serious in the winter when there is such short daylight.

IOSF has carried out a lot of research on the best way to keep otters safe including the use of wildlife warning reflectors, tunnels and fencing. It is essential that the measures put in place are appropriate to the site. For example wildlife warning reflectors will not work on busy roads and fencing has to be sufficient to make sure the otters do not climb over, go under or round them on to the road. IOSF acts to advise and provide help to ensure the most appropriate mitigation measures. Measures such as tunnels have to be carried out by road authorities but in certain circumstances IOSF provides wildlife warning reflectors.

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Fisheries Liason

In 2012 IOSF organised a workshop with representatives from the fishing community and otter workers. The aim was to reduce the conflict between otters and fisheries and to establish best practice methods to keep otters away from stock.

Since then IOSF has advised on various incidents involving otters and fish stocks from the simple garden pond with goldfish to ponds with expensive koi carp and even larger scale fish farms. Each situation is different and requires on site assessment and specific advice.

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